Monday, 10 October 2011

Sweet-toothed and sweet natured - how people who like sweet things are sweet

"Honey", "Sweetheart", "Sugar": how come so many terms of endearment pertain to sweetness? Might the metaphor be grounded in a real link between sweet taste and pleasing personality traits and behaviour?

Brian Meier and his team had dozens of students rate the agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism of 100 people, based on pictures of their faces and a strap-line identifying each person's preference for a particular food, such as "I like grapefruit". People who said they liked a sweet food were judged by the students as more agreeable, suggesting that we implicitly recognise that a taste for sweet things is grounded in a sweet personality.

Are people right to make this implicit assumption? Further studies suggested so. Students who rated their own personality as more agreeable also tended to have a stronger preference (than their less agreeable peers) for sweet foods and drinks. Among a different set of students, a stronger preference for sweet foods correlated positively with their willingness to volunteer their time, unpaid, for a separate unrelated study - considered by the researchers as a sign of prosocial behaviour.

So, we assume that people who like sweet foods are nice people, and it turns out they are. Can this link be exploited? What if you give someone a sweet food to eat - will they feel more agreeable? Will they actually become more helpful? In two further studies, students given chocolate to eat (either a Hershey's Kiss or a piece of Dove Silky Smooth chocolate), rated themselves as more agreeable and actually volunteered more of their time to help an unknown researcher, as compared with students given a sour sweet or a water cracker.

"We are unaware of any studies showing that taste metaphors are consequential in predicting social functioning, and thus the findings are unique," the researchers said. Why is there this link between sweet taste and personality and behaviour? Meier and his team think one possible root cause may lie in breast-feeding. "... [H]uman breast milk is decidedly sweet in taste and chemical composition and feeding episodes are marked by a close bond of mother and child," they observed. "Thus, one of the earliest bases for later emotional attachments is also marked by a sweet-tasting ingested food."

The psychologists added that future research is needed to explore other potential links between tastes and personality. Might lovers of spicy foods have spicy personalities, for instance? Also, we need to find out if the same links pertain in languages other than English. "The general point is that taste-related metaphors may be useful in understanding other personality processes than those examined," they said.

Meanwhile, if wind of these results gets out, romantic liaisons could become a little more complicated. Has your partner given you that box of chocolates to make you "sweet", literally because they're after something and want you to be more amenable? On the other hand: maybe it's a test. If you turn your nose up at a chocolate, what will that tell them about your personality?

ResearchBlogging.orgMeier, B., Moeller, S., Riemer-Peltz, M., and Robinson, M. (2011). Sweet taste preferences and experiences predict prosocial inferences, personalities, and behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0025253

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Nora Miller said...

Years ago, I spent some time with my son's girlfriend and her five-year-old daughter. The little girl was a holy terror, rude, foul-mouthed, prone to tantrum, etc. She also hated chocolate. I thought that explained a lot. I will be interested to hear if this connected carries over to other languages--seems like it would, but then, I seem to recall that a common French endearment is "my petite cabbage", hardly a sweet thing!

Anonymous said...

That's funny Nora. I do not trust people who hate chocolate :). The authors of the article suggest that such results might not be obtained in cultures where sweet is not discussed in metaphor in terms of personality (France is one of them). However, the pleasantness of sweet tastes is a universal phenomenon so maybe sweet is used to understand other positive actions or traits. What about other people who read this digest from non-English speaking countries? Do you think the effects would replicate in your country?

Anonymous said...

In Chinese, a 'sweet' is often used to describe a person who has a kind, sociable and cheerful personality.

However, things which are high in high GI carbohydrate taste sweet, eg chocolate, lollies and bakeries. These food are easily digested and gives people high sugar levels quickly. The quick raise in blood sugar also releases endorphine which makes people feel 'good'.

Human likes the taste of sweet because it implies the food will give them a burst of energy and the feeling of pleasure. As a result 'sweet' is associated with 'good'.

When someone has a good personality ie friendly, agreeable and sociable, the 'sweet' is a substitue for the word 'good'.

I think more studies will need to be done in order to determine how much sweet food actually affect one's personality.

Megan Kerr said...

Immediate response and enduring quality traits are a little different, though. And what if they'd given the other group something actually *nice* for those without a sweet tooth - like a delicious cheese, some tapenade, a bit of pate? And could our cultural associations of sweet=reward have played a role in their subsequent behaviour? The study doesn't seem sufficiently controlled to me. Also, those with and without a sweet tooth would surely react differently to how they perceive what they're being given?

Anonymous said...

This just doesnt make any sense. people who like sweets are more agreeable and have better manner? what kind of study is this? you should realize that this is typical north american behavior that seeks sweet way too much. and i think it is more of a general commercial tendency as well. even if something is not that good (but when that is readily available), people will think that is good, without actually judging why it is good. this happens everywhere, like all marketing heavy industries.
and specially, in US, about half of the entire products are to do with sugar based. no wonder why so many obese people live there. plus fact that brain does tell you that it is a good thing too. in many cultures, sweet taste is not so desired. so are you telling me that obese people are more agreeable? (because they take much more sugar product than others.) who paid this research? Hershey?

Mac Andrews said...

Bottom line is people in this experiment attribute positive personality traits to those who it was suggested express a liking for sweet foods. I see no problem with this in terms of controls. From a CDP standpoint we construct positive subject positions through desciptors like "sweet", "honey", "sugar" as well as qualitatively contrasting like "sour puss", "bitter person", "cheesy sense of humour", "savoury character", "meaty remarks. Olfactory and gustatory sense references may be widely culturally assumed to reflect similar human experiences between us (not that this would necessarily be empirical as we know) and thus become sensory social metaphors for character which communicates phenomenological experience. Strikes me as a no-brainer - if it is in the language you might expect it to accompany some sort of consistent effect.

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